1The flowering of contemporary scholarly interest in Adam Smith, which essentially began with the project of producing the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, continues to grow and to deepen our understanding of Smith. These mostly excellent recent contributions confirm the place of Smith’s moral philosophy not only as the cornerstone of Smith’s thought, but also in its own right as a living significant account of morality. Interest in Smith has escaped beyond the narrow confines of economists, and Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) is now more widely read and discussed perhaps than the Wealth of Nations (WN). Indeed only Keppler among this group of authors and this reviewer are economists. The old Adam Smith problem has evolved as consistency is no longer an issue. We now have access to Smith’s posthumously published philosophical essays as well as student notes, which show us that Smith was working on a grand scale within the Scottish Enlightenment program of developing a science of man. Smith failed to complete his project, and so we are left with the interpretive task of working out the interconnections between the various parts of the project. The relationship between TMS and WN is still a vital issue, as is the larger question of the relation of ethics to economics. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that TMS and not WN is the foundation of the whole. The five books under review here are indicative of these trends.
2In a letter to Alec Macfie dated 13 April 1972 D.D. Raphael comments that, “I am now writing about the Impartial Spectator. I have been asked to do the Dawes Hicks Lecture at the British Academy in November, and my thought at present is to make it on the Impartial Spectator.” The Dawes Lecture became Raphael’s chapter, “The Impartial Spectator” in Essays on Adam Smith, the volume of essays issued as part of the Adam Smith Bicentenary at Glasgow University (Raphael, 1976). This slim volume of the same name represents the culmination of Raphael’s thought on Smith’s moral theory. Certainly no one is better qualified than he to give us a short, pithy account of Smith’s moral philosophy. As one of the two editors of the Glasgow Edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he is acutely aware of the development of Smith’s thought through the six editions of the book. Raphael has long maintained that Smith’s originality lies in, “the development of the concept [of the impartial spectator] so as to explain the judgements of conscience made by an agent about his own actions.” (31) He now places Smith above Hume as a moral philosopher, and unsurpassed in his account of the conscience.
3That moral judgment is essentially rooted in feeling and that it arises socially from the sympathy of spectators are aspects of Smith’s sentimental approach that are already present in Hutcheson and Hume. While there are differences between the way Hume and Smith use sympathy in their accounts of moral judgment, the impartial spectator’s role in the formation of the agent’s conscience is the enduring contribution of Smith. The impartial spectator is a higher authority than actual spectators in moral judgment. While spectating and sympathizing are inherently social activities, rooted in human psychology, Smith’s insight of turning the process inward allows the agent in the imagination to rise above context and the passions of interest. Thus Raphael argues that:
The impartial spectator, ’the man within’, may judge differently from the actual spectator, ’the man without’. The voice of conscience reflects what I imagine that I, with all my knowledge of the situation, would feel if I were a spectator instead of an agent. It is easy to miss this distinction and to suppose that conscience for Smith is purely a reflection of actual social attitudes. (36)
This shows a fundamental tension in Smith’s theory:
On the one hand, Smith wanted to retain the traditional view that the voice of conscience represents the voice of God and is superior to popular opinion. On the other hand, he believed that conscience is initially an effect of social approval and disapproval (37).
4I do not want to venture into the issue of Smith’s personal religious convictions, especially the argument that Raphael has made and revisits in this book that Smith gradually moved away from a recognizably Christian theology. From a purely secular perspective we have the struggle between conventional social opinion and the higher authority of the agent’s conscience. It is this psychological and sociological genesis of the conscience, which Raphael views as Smith’s enduring achievement. This is then coupled with the conscience’s ability to produce moral imperatives from sympathy, not logical deductions, which would violate Hume’s strictures against deducing “ought” from “is”:
What, then, endures from Adam Smith’s moral philosophy? It connects moral judgement with social relationship in a novel way, explaining its origin by reference to the reaction of spectators. That gives conscience a social origin and a social function. Smith’s theory of conscience is a hypothesis that conscience is derived from social relationship, and therefore that the moral use of the word ’ought’ is derived from situations described in purely positive terms. (134-135)
5In this way agents are able to rise above moral relativism, social context, and custom to arrive at a higher morality that aims at universality. They also rise above self and achieve impartiality not only toward others, but also toward self: “He the moral agent] can do so because the imagination can free itself from the ties of practical desires” (128).
6This is a complex theory, which, as Raphael argues holds its own against more modern theories of the conscience, such as Freud’s (48). It would not be surprising to find that Smith did not think it through all at once. Raphael’s comparative advantage as an interpreter of Smith’s moral theory arises partly from his deep experience with the text itself. He thus begins the book with a discussion of the significant differences between the first and last editions. He argues persuasively that Smith’s theory of the impartial spectator underwent considerable development over the years: “I believe there is evidence enough to say that the earliest version of Smith’s lectures on moral philosophy did not contain the theory of the impartial spectator at all” (32; also 50). The manuscript fragment on justice, which we believe dates from 1752 (33), does not contain the concept. In response to Sir Gilbert Elliot’s criticism that the conscience is independent of social attitudes, the second edition adds clarification, and the distinction between love of praise and praiseworthiness appears only in the sixth edition (39). Nonetheless, Raphael concludes that Smith’s fundamental position, “that an agent can judge his own character and conduct only if he imagines himself in the position of a spectator,” remains unchanged throughout (42; emphasis in original).
7With an economy of style and precision of expression, Raphael takes the reader through fourteen short chapters, touching on issues ranging from the evolution of TMS through its six editions to the place of ethics in economics. The theory of the impartial spectator and the development of the conscience of the moral agent stand out as an enduring contribution, which can inform debate on contemporary issues. However, the tension at the heart of Smith’s theory of the conscience remains unresolved. Given its social origins can the agent truly rise above the particulars of time and place to universal morality, the moral law of God? This question is at the heart of Jan Horst Keppler’s Economy of the Passions and Fonna Forman-Barzilai’s Circles of Sympathy.
8Similar to Raphael’s book, this is also a short, pithy book. Being the only economist among this group of writers, Keppler’s book is unique in its focus on the interconnections between Smith’s two books. Raphael begins his book with the warning that Smith’s moral theory has been frequently misunderstood, and that economists have been a fruitful source of such misunderstanding: “One source of misunderstanding is that many of the commentators have been economists who have looked at the Moral Sentiments simply in order to find some relevance for The Wealth of Nations” (Raphael, 2007, 1). Unfortunately, I will argue that Keppler is at least partially guilty. Like Raphael the tension I identified above between the social, contextual origin of moral judgment and the higher authority of the conscience plays a significant role in Keppler’s account. However, in Keppler’s account the vertical dimension, the judgments of the impartial spectator are given from above, and discarded in WN in favour of the contextual interaction of the sympathy mechanism. The relation between divine plan and human morality is, then, resolved by the device of the invisible hand.
9We may summarize what I believe to be the thrust of Keppler’s book as follows. Keppler purports to offer us the definitive interpretation of the Adam Smith problem and to have solved finally the mystery of the invisible hand. The central idea that informs the book is that TMS presents two contradictory processes for generating the rules of morality, a sympathy mechanism operating in the daily interactions of people in society and the impartial spectator representing an ideal standard imposed from above. The first leads to social morality and the systems of law governing real world societies. The second is the realm of universal ethical standards, God’s law, although Keppler has little to say about Smith’s, or his own, religious faith.
10The tension between contextual social and cultural attitudes and the higher authority of the conscience is expressed here as a tension between social morality and universal ethics, or morality vs. ethics for short. Since they are ultimately incompatible, and since Smith is viewed as being aware of this, he ejects the impartial spectator at the end of TMS, and the sympathy mechanism then operates at the level of the market as it shapes preferences and constrains self-love to socially acceptable expressions. The invisible hand brings about the synthesis of the horizontal with the vertical in the unintended achievement of the ideal in the daily interaction of individuals whose self-interest is socially and legally constrained. The invisible hand becomes the centerpiece of Smith’s system. While I found interesting new perspectives in the way the author maps Smith’s thought from The Theory of Moral Sentiments to the Wealth of Nations, ultimately, though, there are significant aspects of the argument I found unconvincing. I agree with the broad outlines of Keppler’s argument, I found much wanting in the details of how it was executed.
11In my view Keppler has misinterpreted the relation between the sympathy mechanism and the impartial spectator. Since this is a crucial part of his account of Smith, it significantly undermines his project. I do not dispute that there is a tension between the actual and the ideal running through both books, between socially determined morality and the moral absolutes of God. However, I do not accept that the relation between the two is one of contradiction (unless we are using “contradiction” in the sense of a tension between thesis and antithesis). Rather I see it as a tension which leads to the evolution of the rules of morality and the evolution of the law (especially the common law). In Part III of TMS Smith is showing how the sympathy mechanism works when the individual turns it onto himself and evaluates his own behavior. Initially he points out that we naturally judge ourselves the same way we judge others:
The principle by which we naturally either approve or disapprove of our own conduct, seems to be altogether the same with that by which we exercise the like judgments concerning the conduct of other people. (TMS III.1.2; emphasis added)
As he develops the theory of the conscience Smith is aiming toward a theory of the formation of general rules of morality. These arise out of a process of induction :
It is thus that the general rules of morality are formed. They are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular circumstances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of. We do not originally approve or condemn particular actions; because, upon examination, they appear to be agreeable or inconsistent with a certain general rule. The general rule, on the contrary, is formed, by finding from experience, that all actions of a certain kind, or circumstanced in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of. (TMS III.4.8; emphasis added)
12Actual spectators, however, can be fooled by externally correct behavior which does not flow from correct motives since they cannot enter into the mind of the moral agent. Since we have knowledge the actual spectators do not have and since we have learned what to expect from actual spectators, we are able to make a truer evaluation of ourselves than can actual spectators. The internal knowledge we possess is that of our motives and, therefore, we are naturally led to apply the standards we have learned from actual spectators to motives. We can more accurately assess the merit of our actions. Actual spectators can only judge the propriety of our actions and attempt to deduce our motives. Unlike actual observers we do know our motives and cannot really lie to ourselves.
13The significance of this is that Smith is now working with two standards, as Keppler rightly observes, which arise out of the same sympathy process. The agent begins to have a conscience when he imagines himself to be the spectator of his own actions and, crucially, now also his own thoughts and motives. Smith believes that it is universal and instinctive in human nature to want to satisfy both, i.e. to be approved of (actual spectators) and to be what ought to be approved of if all were known (conscience) (TMS III.2.7). It is this latter which makes us fit for society, and which, as noted above, Smith added in the sixth edition. The idea that he abandoned the impartial spectator at the end of TMS, does not ring true. As Raphael and Forman-Barzilai both argue, Smith was clearly bothered by the criticism that his theory could not transcend conventional social morality. Smith increasingly associated the general rules with the laws of God, so the vertical dimension, if anything, grew stronger in the last edition. Keppler is right about the two standards, but I think wrong to divorce the conscience from the sympathy process.
- 1 I have written a longer review of Keppler in which I take up his critique of Viner, so I will not v (...)
14Keppler’s proposed solution is that having abandoned the vertical dimension of the impartial spectator, Smith brings in the invisible hand to resolve the tension between the actual and the ideal. Individuals unwittingly further the divine plan following their own self-interest, or more broadly, following the sympathy mechanism. The problem with this is that it requires interpreting Smith as a doctrinaire proponent of laissez faire. The locus classicus on the topic is, of course, Jacob Viner, but one could also profitably read Andrew Skinner’s work on the role of the state in Smith (Viner, 1928; Skinner, 1996)1.
15While rejecting Keppler’s solution, the tension between the social origins of the conscience and its position as a higher authority (the demigod within the breast) remains. Amartya Sen (2009) argues, however, that the point of view of the “man within the breast” represents a position of well-informed impartiality. He refers to this as “open impartiality”:
There is, however, a basic distinction between two quite different ways of invoking impartiality, and that contrast needs more investigation. I shall call them respectively ’open’ and ’closed’ impartiality. With ‘closed impartiality’, the procedure of making impartial judgements invokes only the members of a given society or nation (or what John Rawls calls a given ’people’) for whom the judgements are being made. … In contrast, in the case of ’open impartiality’, the procedure of making impartial assessments can (and in some cases, must) invoke judgements, among others, from outside the focal group, to avoid parochial bias. (Sen, 2009, 123)
16Smith’s impartial spectator is an example of “open impartiality” and it provides Sen with a vital resource in his project of identifying and eradicating “redressable injustice”, no matter where in the world it takes place (Sen, 2009, vii). On this view the impartial spectator becomes the basis for a global ethics, the ideal of global citizenship, which is Forman-Barzilai’s entry point into Smith’s ethics. Does the theory of the impartial spectator do what Sen wants it to do? Does it provide wholly secular philosophical resources for a truly cosmopolitan perspective?
17TMS Part III is about more than the psychological genesis of the individual’s conscience. As already indicated Smith is also giving an account of how we form general rules and develop a sense of duty to obey them. In so doing he confronts the problem of distance using Berkeley’s theory of vision to argue that the mind comes to learn that distant objects are larger than they appear (TMS, III.3.2). In the moral realm this allows the agent to form moral judgments concerning far away events, such as earthquakes in China (TMS, III.3.4): “Before we can make any proper comparisons of those opposite interests [our own versus another’s], we must change our position” (TMS, III.3.3). We must imagine ourselves observing ourselves from a distance.
18Absent this imaginary change of position, our natural affections, sympathies, fall off as distance increases:
The preservation and healthful state of the body seem to be the objects which Nature first recommends to the care of every individual (TMS, VI.i.1).
After himself, the members of his own family, those who usually live in the same house with him, his parents, his children, his brothers and sisters, are naturally the objects of his warmest affections (TMS, VI.ii.1.2).
The same principles that direct the order in which individuals are recommended to our beneficence, direct that likewise in which societies are recommended to it. Those to which it is, or may be of the most importance, are first and principally recommended to it (TMS, VI.ii.2.1).
Though our effectual good offices can very seldom be extended to any wider society than that of our own country; our good-will is circumscribed by no other boundary, but may embrace the immensity of the universe (TMS, VI.ii.3.1).
19The care of the universe, however, is God’s business not ours (TMS VI.ii.3.6). These are the “Circles of Sympathy” in the title of Fonna Forman-Barzilai’s excellent book, which form the structure of the book itself.
20The book is the first full scale analysis of the role of geographic distance in Smith’s moral philosophy. Motivated by current debate over the idea of a global ethics, Forman-Barzilai takes a constructively critical position vis-à-vis the ability of Smith’s theory to provide the necessary philosophical resources needed to overcome, “the conventions of time and place” (1).
21However, in contrast to Sen and covering some of the same ground as Raphael, her
essential contention … is that conscience for Smith was in important ways continuous with his sociological account of sympathy and, as such, falls flat as a cosmopolitan device for getting us beyond ourselves. In other words, conscience too was a function of social experience, and inevitably constructed through that experience. (15-16; also 89)
22Thus, “the vivid tension between ordinary moral experience and reflective transcendence remains productively unresolved in Smith’s thought” (17) The problem, she contends later in the text is that the transcendence the moral agent achieves from adopting the perspective of the impartial spectator is only partial. We achieve what she calls “affective enlargement” (160) in that the imaginary change of position allows us to view our own feelings from a distance. However, it does not explain how we might transcend cultural bias:
I argue that it is ultimately incapable of generating the sort of impartiality necessary for calling our own cultural experience into question, a critical space in which we might come to know ourselves better and to evaluate those who are culturally remote without assimilating them to ourselves. (161)
23The theory does not achieve the “open impartiality” Sen attributes to it (180). The problem is simply that the spectator is one of “us” (175). What TMS does provide is a theory of social order:
I believe that the Moral Sentiments was ultimately dedicated to addressing this problem of social coordination among those who lived in relatively close proximity with one another; who tended already in varying degrees to care for one another as neighbors, fellow citizens, Christians, moderns; and who tended already in varying degrees to be unified by shared views and beliefs about many fundamental things. (193; emphasis in the original)
24It cannot, for example, be enlisted in arguments about “multicultural education” (191).
25However, in the search for cosmopolitanism and a global ethics there are Smithian resources to be found in the negative virtue of justice, the penultimate chapter in the book. “The answer for Smith lay in what he described as an instinctive human aversion to cruelty” (232). Justice is the virtue which protects the individual from harm regardless of where in the world the harm comes from. The first two duties of the sovereign:
First, the duty of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice and oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice. (WN, IV.ix.51)
26Defense and justice support the negative virtue of justice. Without national defense there would be no system of justice to maintain; similarly without the administration of justice there would be no justice. In addition to the universality of the spectator’s, “visceral access to the suffering of others” (219), other features of justice suggest its universality. First, it is a necessary condition for the existence of society (TMS, II.ii.3.3), which means that:
There is an obvious reason why custom should never pervert our sentiments with regard to the general style and character of conduct and behaviour, in the same degree as with regard to the propriety or unlawfulness of particular usages. There never can be any such custom. No society could subsist a moment, in which the usual strain of men’s conduct and behaviour was of a piece with the horrible practice I have just now mentioned. (TMS, V.2.16)
27All existing societies will have sufficient protection against harm to the life and person of its members to at least function. At least a minimal conception of justice is, therefore, universal. Second, the general rules of justice are like the rules of grammar (TMS, III.6.11). They are “accurate in the highest degree” (TMS, III.6.10), which means they can be written down and understood by all. They are binding on strangers as well as countrymen. It, thus, “yields a minimal sort of universal jurisprudence” (240). The argument, however, that the spectator’s access to the suffering of others “works independently of the sympathetic apparatus” (219; emphasis in original), I find more problematic. That justice is a virtue with unique qualities is undeniable. However, I do not see that the spectator’s sympathy with the resentment of the victim is an “independent” operation of the sympathy mechanism. Physical and emotional pain are universal experiences, which transcend culture and history. We do not need to resolve the tension in Smith’s ethics to follow Sen in redressing suffering in the world. In a sense the virtue of justice opens up a way around the problem. We do not need to overcome cultural bias to sympathize with the resentment of victims of injustice.
28Moreover, physical pain and suffering are capable of being communicated non-verbally to any human spectator. Thus, it may be possible to reach agreement to redress specific instances of human suffering without resolving the almost intractable issues Alasdair MacIntyre raises concerning the tradition-bound nature of conceptions of justice and practical rationality (MacIntyre, 1988). Smithian sympathy, thus, operates in contexts where philosophical and ethical discourse between adherents to mutually incomprehensible traditions would at best be difficult.
29Justice, of course, is not the only Smithian virtue. And while Forman-Barzilai does have a chapter on commercial society and the globalized economy of Smith’s WN, the moral failings of commercial society and Smith’s response to them are not a significant presence in her book. Such, however, is not the case for the last two books under review here.
30Ryan Patrick Hanley, like Raphael, begins with the interpretive problem presented by Smith’s TMS Part VI, which was the last piece Smith himself prepared for publication before he died. It is tempting, therefore, to view it as Smith’s last testament, what he wanted most urgently to bequeath to posterity. In Hanley’s treatment Part VI should be understood as Smith’s attempt to redress the moral defects of commercial society. As such Smith’s account of the virtues is seen as a normative virtue ethics, in contrast to both utilitarian and deontological normative ethics. The argument unfolds as Smith treats the moral education of an individual agent as occurring in three distinct stages. The agent first learns prudence, then magnanimity, and finally beneficence. Hanley argues that each of these virtues, and their respective stage in moral development, is a response to a specific set of moral failings characteristic of commercial society:
Briefly, Smith’s account of the virtue of prudence is conceived as a remedy for the vices of restlessness and anxiety induced by commercial vanity; his account of the virtue of magnanimity is conceived as a remedy for the vices of mediocrity and conformism induced by commercial materialism; and his account of beneficence is conceived as a remedy for the vices of alienation, indifference, and inhibition of sympathy that are the consequences of commercial individualism. (93)
31Hanley’s argument first situates Smith’s ethics in virtue ethics as opposed to either utilitarian or deontological ethical theories, and second links Smith’s new TMS VI to the manifold defects of commercial society. On this reading Smith’s parting thoughts to his contemporaries is that the system of natural liberty requires virtuous citizens, and that furthermore, the “system of practical morality” offers valuable normative insight into living well in a modern commercial society. The book is well written and cogently argued, and in the main I am sympathetic to its arguments. While I have some reservations about casting Smith as a virtue ethicist as opposed to a deontologist, I will confine my remarks to the central issue of Smith’s account of the virtues and their role in redressing the moral dangers associated with commercial society and the system of natural liberty.
32Hanley’s account of how the virtues line up in a logical fashion to address the moral failings of commercial life seems to me to rest on a faulty premise. He argues that the virtues listed at TMS III.6.11 are a more illuminating approach to TMS VI than traditional approach based on the TMS VI chapter headings. The former, Hanley refers to as the “revised” list, which has been substituted for the latter (93). TMS III.6.11 lists the virtues as prudence, “just” magnanimity, and “proper” beneficence. The traditional view takes Smith at his word in Part VI and views justice, prudence, benevolence, and self-command as the four cardinal virtues in Smith. The new Part VI gives an account of three of these, with justice having been treated primarily in Part II.
33The problem as I see it is that the “revised list”, which Hanley claims offers a better guide to the organization and thrust of TMS VI than Smith’s own chapter headings, was written long before TMS VI. TMS III did undergo substantial revisions for the sixth edition. Writing to Thomas Cadell in March of 1788 Smith remarked that, “I am making many additions and corrections. The chief and the most important additions will be to the third part, that concerning the sense of Duty and to the last part” (CORR, 276; emphasis in the original). The most important revision, the new TMS VI, apparently came even later as Smith, again writing to Cadell in March 1789, apologized for the delay in producing the manuscript, “but the subject has grown upon me.” (CORR, 287) TMS VI was not even on Smith’s mind as late as March 1788, and the sixth edition was not published until 1790. The list of virtues in TMS III.6.11 cannot be a revised version of those we now have on TMS VI.
34The editors of the Glasgow Edition confirm that Smith did make significant changes in Part III, but none of them seem to me to relate to the list of virtues as prudence, magnanimity, and beneficence in TMS 6.11. The traditional approach to Smith’s account of the virtues seems vindicated to me. If TMS III.6.11 was really a better list, why didn’t Smith simply adopt it in the new part? If anything, the cardinal virtues as expressed in TMS VI is the “revised” list, not the one Hanley wants to privilege. Hanley does make a strong case that these virtues may be seen as continuing and deepening Smith’s case for natural liberty by addressing in depth the solutions to all forms of character destruction associated with commercial society. However, the fact that Smith did not approach his account of virtue the way Hanley does suggests that other factors may be at work in turning Smith’s attention to this account at the very end of his life. I believe that a more straightforward political problem may lie at the heart of TMS VI.
35Smith’s normative evaluation of commercial society is complex, and we need to make a distinction that Hanley does not seem to make. There are two distinct models of commercial society in Smith: the mercantile system and the simple system of natural liberty. While not disputing Hanley’s position that TMS VI addresses in a logical order the ethical defects of commercial society as they impinge on the lives of ordinary people, I would suggest that we also can see a strong political thrust and a concern for the civic or public virtue of the governing elites in his society. The editors of the Glasgow Edition, for example, have suggested that, “In his strictures on civil faction and the spirit of system Smith appears to be reacting to the French Revolution” (Raphael and Macfie, 1976, 18), a point which explains the further delay in publication after March 1789. It seems to me that he could also be reacting to the politics of the mercantile system alluded to at the end of WN I:
The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the publick. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the publick; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens. The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the publick, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the publick, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it. (WN, I xi.10)
36In modern parlance the mercantile system was a rent-seeking society. An interest group was able to hijack public policy to create monopolies that enriched the class of merchants and manufacturers. The nature of this “oppression” is spelled out in another new chapter Smith wrote late in life only a few years before TMS VI:
It is the industry which is carried on for the benefit of the rich and the powerful, that is principally encouraged by our mercantile system. That which is carried on for the benefit of the poor and the indigent, is too often, either neglected, or oppressed. (WN, IV.viii.4)
37It was the gross injustice of the mercantile system, and the political corruption and personal vice which perpetuated it that seems to be very much on Smith’s mind during his last decade. This may also have motivated Smith’s decision not to remove the material on the American Revolution even though the issue had been completely resolved by 1784, the year the third edition of WN was published (see Skinner, 1996 and 2009 on the Smith’s analysis of the revolution). Is it any wonder, then, that Smith should be concerned about the state of civic virtue in a rent-seeking society as well as the revolutionary desire to remake society from the ground up that was currently enflaming France? Thus, perhaps one of the last things he wrote before he died was a political jeremiad against the evils of faction and the man of system:
Amidst the turbulence and disorder of faction, a certain spirit of system is apt to mix itself with that public spirit which is founded upon the love of humanity, upon a real fellow-feeling with the inconveniencies and distresses to which some of our fellow-citizens may be exposed. This spirit of system commonly takes the direction of that more gentle public spirit; always animates it, and often inflames it even to the madness of fanaticism. (TMS, VI.ii.2.15)
But to insist upon establishing, and upon establishing all at once, and in spite of all opposition, every thing which that idea [of the perfection of policy and law] may seem to require, must often be the highest degree of arrogance. It is to erect his own judgment into the supreme standard of right and wrong. (TMS, VI.ii.2.18)
38Hanley’s book is beautifully written, well-researched and carefully reasoned. It along with the others is an important contribution to the burgeoning literature on Smith’s ethics. Similar to my view of Keppler’s book, I find that I agree in the main with many of the points he wishes to press, that virtue is necessary for natural liberty and WN is a work of a virtuous person (I would add virtuous philosopher [see page 193, n16]). Nonetheless I found some of the details of the argument not convincing.
39Fortunately, Professor Phillipson ignored the advice not to bother with attempting a biography of Adam Smith (6). Smith’s biography is notoriously difficult on both the writer and the reader. It is no secret that Smith was a very private person, who wanted simply to be remembered as the author of two books. Repeatedly Phillipson begins significant chapters of Smith’s pre-TMS life with comments such as, “His student life at Glasgow and Oxford is almost completely undocumented” (24), “Smith was characteristically unforthcoming about his time at Oxford. […] What lectures he attended, even the name of his tutor, is unknown. Nor do we know what access he had to books and libraries”(59), and, “The text of the course he gave in Edinburgh is missing” (92). The biographer must then follow such statements with conjectures. The last one quoted is immediately followed with, “…but it seems reasonable to suppose that the notes two students took of the course in 1762-3 give a pretty fair guide to the essentials of a system of thought that had been developed in the 1740s ” (ibid.) While the lack of information on Smith’s student years is filled in with, “…nevertheless it is clear that these were crucial years in his intellectual development.” (24) Following these conjectures the author then fills in with what historians know about Smith’s surroundings : Kirkcaldy, Glasgow, Edinburgh, etc. Smith himself must be inferred by filling in everything around him, a procedure, which if overdone, becomes quite tedious for the reader. Following the publication of the TMS, Smith becomes a public figure, and the biographer is on much solider grounds as there is a much richer set of documents from which to work.
40Phillipson, however, is more concerned about telling the story of Smith’s thought. This is, after all, self-consciously an intellectual biography. Unlike the other books under review here, Phillipson concentrates on a broad-brush portrayal of Smith’s thought suitable for a wide audience. The real star of this book is the body of ideas Smith both wittingly and unwittingly bequeathed to us. The biography, however, shares a common perspective with these other books in that TMS takes center stage. Phillipson casts Smith as a thorough going Humean who, with Hume, is fleshing out the Science of Man project Hume began with the Treatise of Human Nature.
41In reconstructing Smith’s early education in Kirkcaldy, he argues that elements of Smith’s later thinking on virtue and morality could have originated in his early exposure to the classics as well as to The Spectator. Treating humans as needy, sociable creatures, the science of man focuses on human sociability as the central characteristic of human nature.
42Phillipson, then, tells a Smithian, i.e. conjectural, story of the trajectory of Smith’s thought from his Edinburgh lectures on rhetoric and jurisprudence to his “very violent attack” on the mercantile system (CORR, 208), and to the sixth edition revisions of TMS. Throughout is a concern with the operation of civil society and civic virtue in the age of commerce, themes shared with Hanley’s book just discussed. Language, sympathy, law, and commerce are all treated as forms of sociability, the means humans have developed to communicate with each other to overcome the natural weakness of the human species in the struggle for existence. Verbal and non-verbal communication are the bases upon which humans have constructed elaborate forms of social and economic cooperation.
43In Phillipson’s reconstruction the Edinburgh lectures, which launched Smith’s public career were also seminal in the development of his thought. It was here that Smith’s essay on the origin and development of language was first aired, and it was here that such central Smithian theories as the impartial spectator and the four stages of development originated. It was also these lectures that made Smith the ideal candidate for the logic chair at Glasgow. Thus, he entered his professorship with a body of ideas and a research program that were already quite developed. As Phillipson recognizes this is itself a “conjectural history”, which is impossible to verify or refute in the current state of knowledge, but it is one which someone like the Smith we know could have followed.
44Phillipson’s conjectural history seems to be on more solid foundations with the lectures on rhetoric than those on jurisprudence. Both Raphael and Forman-Barzilai have made out a compelling case for evolutionary development of Smith’s account of the conscience. Raphael, in particular does not believe that Smith had the concept of the impartial spectator at all in the early 1750s when he was first lecturing in Edinburgh and Glasgow. He makes a strong case, alluded to above, that Smith did not have the concept of the impartial spectator until well into his career at Glasgow (Raphael, 2007, 32).
45In addition to following the sociability theme through the evolution of Smith’s thought, Phillipson is also attentive to Smith’s Newtonian heritage. There is a methodological unity to this evolution as Smith is viewed as a systematizer who seeks to unify knowledge around as little a set of principles as possible. This gives Smith’s writings their characteristic feature of stating a principle and then illustrating it with observations from common life. In a sense Phillipson approaches Smith’s thought in a similar vein in that he finds a unifying theme, sociability broadly conceived, and then follows it through the historical trajectory of Smith’s known and conjectured thought. In more ways than one, this is a Smithian biography.
46The book is so well done it is hard to raise a complaint or an objection. Other than the comment above about the impartial spectator, the only other minor objection I would raise is with respect to Smith’s encounter with the Physiocrats in Paris in 1766. Phillipson remarks that
Smith’s knowledge of Quesnay’s work was equally incomplete. He had first got to know of him in the late 1750s through the Encyclopedie articles on ’Grains’ and ’Fermiers’, which had advocated free trade in grain and laid the foundations of Quesnay’s classic claim that land was the sole source of a nation’s wealth. (193)
47There is no evidence of a physiocratic influence in Smith’s pre-1764 economic thought. Previous scholarship had come to the conclusion that Smith knew nothing about the Physiocrats before his 10 months in Paris. (See for example Scott, 1937, 125) Certainly the internal evidence from comparing the economic theory of his Lectures in Jurisprudence with that in WN strongly suggests that whatever he might have read from physiocratic writing, which he had in his library, he was unaware of the model Quesnay first published in the Tableau Economique in 1758 (Skinner, 1996, 137).
48One might also complain that other aspects of Smith’s thought, especially the lesser-known essays of the posthumous Essays on Philosophical Subjects are not brought into play. However, these are inessential quibbles.
49I would raise perhaps a somewhat more substantive point, though. There are a lot of rough edges, some of which become central interpretive problems in the books under review, in treating Smith’s thought as a unified whole, which are smoothed over perhaps a bit too much. The incomplete nature of Smith’s work is acknowledged at the outset. However, there are also a host of real or imagined issues of consistency between the parts of this incomplete work the reconciliation of which has spawned a huge secondary literature. Phillipson is, of course, aware of all of this, and perhaps in the attempt to make his biography readable for a wide audience he has smoothed over issues of consistency, especially those which arise in the interface between economics and moral philosophy. Thus, the whole Adam Smith problem is dismissed at one stroke:
As Robertson, Millar and Stewart had realized, his political economy was deeply embedded in a system of moral philosophy, jurisprudence and politics about which most of his readers [of WN] knew nothing. The question was, how much of it did they need to know if they were to make sense of his political economy? Smith’s answer was, not much. (217)
50Unfortunately, what Robertson et al. knew in 1776 was essentially lost to economists (and continues to be lost except within the isolated society of historians of economics). Phillipson’s conjecture about Smith’s answer sounds reasonable to me, but it does gloss over quite a bit.
51These issues might carry weight with Smith scholars. However, for the general audience, to whom this book is addressed, the elegant, competent telling of the evolution of Smith’s thought as a unified whole is an important contribution. The result is that rare literary achievement: a readable, full-scale biography of Smith. Phillipson brings to a wider public a sense of the richness and continuing relevance of Smith’s system of thought, which has motivated the close textual and philosophical scrutiny of the authors of these other books. It is a fitting conclusion to this already long review.